The Case for Private Environmental Stewardship, by John Carlisle

There’s just no pleasing some people. Twenty-nine years ago, the first Earth Day was held to raise public awareness to very real environmental problems this nation faced. Today, two-thirds of the American people consider themselves environmentalists and the private sector – once regarded as a principal threat to a clean and healthy environment – now frequently leads the way in aiding the environment.

But many environmentalists can’t accept their success: They dismiss private sector efforts to improve the environment as “greenwashing” – public relations campaigns environmentalists say are designed only to improve corporate image. Apparently, environmental good deeds only count if they are government-directed good deeds.

But the government environmental programs aren’t all that matter.

Private, non-profit foundations manage at least one million acres of wildlife refuges for a wide variety of species and operate at least 11,000 duck hunting clubs that protect between 5-7 million acres of wetlands.1 In addition, many important natural and historic sites are operated successfully by for-profit companies. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has documented some of the more notable examples. The Natural Bridge of Virginia, a majestic natural limestone arch in the Blue Ridge Mountains, has been a major tourist attraction run by the private sector ever since Thomas Jefferson became the first owner in 1774. Today’s owner, the Natural Bridge of Virginia Company, carefully maintains the pristine beauty of the site while still offering 300,000 tourists per year hotel accommodations, shops, restaurants and conference facilities.2 For 67 years, Sea Lion Caves, Inc. of Oregon has profitably operated the largest sea cave in the United States. The cave is very important ecologically in that it is the only known mainland breeding and wintering area for the Steller Sea Lion.3

Contrary to stereotypes that business is anti-environment, there are many instances of corporations working for a better environment. Major Fortune 500 corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars – in some cases, billions – to improve the environment since the first Earth Day. General Motors and other auto manufacturers, for instance, have reduced their major tailpipe emissions by more than 96 percent.4 And they have poured millions of additional dollars into research that may someday produce completely pollution-free engines. Anheuser-Busch, the St. Louis brewer, recycles more cans each year – 20 billion plus – than it fills with beer. The company also recycles more than 95 percent of the waste it generates. Even the Beechwood chips used to age Budweiser beer are donated as mulch and compost to parks around the country.5

Yet, it seems that government bureaucrats don’t always make it easy for corporations to do the right thing for the environment. In 1993, Coors Brewing Company officials discovered that fumes from spilled beer were more potent and harmful than originally believed. Although Coors was in full compliance with Clean Air regulations and could have pretended nothing had happened, they spent $1.5 million on an 18-month environmental audit which found that the government’s estimates on beer fumes underestimated their potency. Coors turned over their findings to the Colorado Department of Public Health. The department’s response was to fine the company $1.05 million despite the fact that Coors had alerted the government to its own mistake, and never would have been cited if it hadn’t been trying to protect the environment.6

Fining companies for trying to do the right thing for the environment is counter-productive. So is accusing them of “greenwashing.” Those who take the initiative to help improve environmental quality shouldn’t be punished, but rewarded.


John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

1 Robert J. Smith, “Special Report: The Public Benefits of Private Conservation,” from the 15th Annual Report of The Council on Environmental Quality, President’s Council on Environmental Quality, 1984.

2 Robert J. Smith, “Natural Bridge of Virginia,” Center for Private Conservation Case Study, Competitive Enterprise Institute, 1988.

3 Robert J. Smith, “Special Report: The Public Benefits of Private Conservation.”

4 Ted Leonard, “Earth Day Recognition of The Automobile’s Progress,” Pennsylvania AAA Federation, April 12, 1996.

5 Beer Institute, “The Brewers of America: Our Commitment to a Clean Environment.”

6 Valerie Richardson, “Punishment for Coor’s Environmental Good Deed Sparks Public Outcry,” The Washington Times, March 18, 1997, pg. A9.

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